Friday, August 27, 2010

Pet Peeve

Some of you know that I, Der Viator, am or at least was a professional historian. I can be rather punctilious when it comes to historical details. As Monk would say, it’s a blessing….and a curse. The other day I chanced upon the Glenn Beck program on Fox News. I’m neither a fan nor a critic. What bothers me is that he talks about the lessons of history and devotes portions of his show to the past, but at the same time he lacks a broad knowledge of history. For instance, he’ll spend time on Woodrow Wilson (whom he sees as evil) and Calvin Coolidge (whom he sees as benevolent). But here’s the thing. He didn’t even know who Dietrich Bonhoeffer was until quite recently! Now, you might not know who he was either. I don’t expect everyone to know every historical figure who ever lived. But Beck presents himself as a student and voracious reader of history. He also didn’t know the name of the town where Serbs in the summer of 1995 killed over seven thousand Bosniaks, namely Srebrenica. His lack of knowledge gives the impression that he’s tendentious and selective, if not outright ideological, in his quest for lessons from history.

I don’t mean to pick on Glenn Beck, because, as I stated above, I have no ideological animosity toward him. So let me give you another example. As I was surfing the car radio the other day I heard the name Ulrich Zwingli, a Swiss Protestant reformer of the 16th century whom I’ve studied in some depth. Some dude on a Christian station, presumably an expert on church history, was explaining to the host and the audience the Protestant Reformation. I cringed when he said that Zwingli was born in Geneva. Also, his explanation of John Calvin’s doctrine of “total depravity” was flat-out wrong. In the aforementioned cases, so-called expositors of history get the facts wrong. Sometimes historians make basic errors of judgment too. I heard a couple of presidential historians on the radio arguing that Abraham Lincoln is the most important president we’ve ever had. I’d be hard-pressed to deny him slot Number Two, but you don’t have a Republic to salvage in the mid 19th century were it not for George Washington. The latter is clearly the most significant president we’ve ever had.

I know what you’re thinking: Der Viator is rather anal and persnickety. Again, I’m addressing people who claim to be authorities on history, not the laity in general. History is important to me. I can’t help but look askance at those who get their facts wrong, let alone those more pernicious souls who manipulate history for their partisan agenda.